In Memoriam Giovanni Stary

– A Sublime and Humane Ambassador of Manju Scholarship –
Giovanni Stary
(March 27, 1946 – October 19, 2022)

Giovanni Enrico Stary (he rarely used his middle name) was born in Merano in South Tyrol, on March 27, 1946. It may be a coincidence that he was born in a city known through the ages as a residence of scholars and writers alike; it may be another coincidence that South Tyrol, an autonomous province in northern Italy, being home to Germans and Italians, enjoying a strong regional culture, is a prominent model of a region where multiple languages and cultures co-exist in a community. In a wider sense, this may also be said of the Manju nation, their language, culture and religion, subject of the life-long academic interest of Giovanni Stary.

Giovanni Stary studied Classical Chinese at the Istituto Universitario Orientale, at Naples. His doctoral dissertation, defended in 1969, was the ouverture to a lifelong occupation with Central Asia and China: “I primi rapporti tra Russia e Cina. Documenti e testimonianze” [Early relations between Russia and China. Documents and testimonies.], later published in Naples in 1974. A German treatise followed soon, in 1976: “Chinas Erste Gesandte in Russland”. Among these earliest envoys are the Manju diplomat Tulišen, whose report Lakcaha jecen de takûraha babe ejehe bithe [“Book of the remote border areas recorded by the embassy”; the title also being interpreted—rather than translated—as “Narrative of the Chinese Embassy to the Khan of the Tourgouth Tartars”] (in Chinese: 異域錄). Tulišen and his text have been known in the West since the end of the 18th century. Far less known is the fate of Tuoshi and Daisin missions, the Tuoshi mission being systematically purged from the record under Qianlong; the “Draft History of Qing” (清史稿) neither mentions Tuoshi nor Empress Anna or their encounters in 1731 and 1732 at all, only the “History of Qing from Beginning to End” (清史紀事本末), compiled in the early years of the Chinese Republic by Huang Hongshou, mentions Tuoshi’s mission and encounter with Empress Anna.

Beginning with his dissertation thesis, Giovanni Stary made Manju studies an integral element and later central foundation of his scholarly work. To him, Manju never was an extinct or dead language, and his occupation with and dedication to Manju studies never was what is known in some academic circles, occasionally in a mildly disparaging tone, as Hilfswissenschaft. Rather, Manju studies were to him an essentially contemporary field. Thus, he dedicated a considerable portion of his energy to researching Sibe, a modern, yet endangered branch of the Tungusic languages which is still spoken today in Xinjiang and is mutually intelligible with Manju. He published “Epengesänge der Sibe-Mandschuren” (1988), the “Taschenwörterbuch Sibemandschurisch–Deutsch” (1990) and the “‘Schamanenbuch’ der Sibe-Mandschuren” (1992). Whoever among his wide circle of friends happened to travel to China, or better, Xinjiang, was asked to buy every available publication in Sibe.

Beyond scholarly work, he also disseminated his knowledge and understanding of Manju culture to a broader audience. A representative title is “On the Tracks of Manchu Culture. 1644–1994. 350 Years after the Conquest of Peking” (1995). This book contains more than 200 illustrations reflecting the rich heritage of Manju history, inscriptions and material culture, both in the Manju heartland as well as beyond its borders. The book even offers a rare glimpse into the contemporary life of Cabcal Sibe Autonomous County during the year 1991; at that time, public signboards still showed Sibe Manju texts on top, with their Chinese equivalents below — a vivid demonstration of Sibe being indeed the primary language of Cabcal.

Besides his own writing, Giovanni Stary edited and published numerous sources (e.g. “Ars Poetica Manjurica”, 1989, and “Materialien zur Vorgeschichte der Qing-Dynastie”, 1996, to name just two titles), frequently in collaboration with life-long colleagues.

Giovanni Stary was a faithful friend of the PIAC family; he participated in at least 25 Annual Meetings and was the President of the 28th Annual Meeting which was held in Venice in 1985 (he also published the Proceedings volume of this meeting in 1989). His outstanding academic contributions to the field of Altaic studies were recognized with the Indiana University Prize for Altaic Studies, or PIAC Medal in short, in 2006.

Beyond his own research and writing, Giovanni Stary always played a catalytic role in the field. He published dozens of scholarly reviews (the author of these lines counted more than 70 but is not at all sure whether he found all reviews written by him), thus sharing his own broad knowledge of recent work and increasing the visibility of other scholars and their research within the community.

If anything more needs to be said, then that Giovanni Stary was a true bridge between generations of scholars; in prominent position, he mentions Walter Fuchs and Shunju Imanishi as academical teachers. A similar relationship holds true for the author of these lines who, over nearly 20 years, received continuous support and critical feedback from Giovanni Stary along his own humble steps of Manju studies. His guiding spirit will live on and his work will be a source of inspiration to continue Manju studies in a way which demonstrates the lasting significance of the field.

Giovanni Stary was an immediate child of the end of World War II; the peaceful end of the Cold War and the ensuing demise of the Eastern Bloc created a historical window of opportunity for research, academic collaboration and friendship across many borders, as his writings reflect. It must have been painful for him to see this window closing again.

Everybody who knew Giovanni was aware of his frail health in recent years, but everybody was devastated to hear that the wonderful human being he was no longer is with us. Over decades of fruitful collaboration, many of his colleagues become close friends, and we all mourn, with great sadness, his departure.

Oliver Corff
Secretary General
November 5th, 2022.